On The Shoulders Of Giants: A Year In Review Of Online Great Books
By Zach Corbin
My introduction to the Great Books of the Western World occurred when I was a teenager. My father had picked up a full set in 1989. After I started showing interest in the classics he pulled the first volume, the Syntopicon, off the shelf and handed it to me. Trying to read through the likes of Plato, Homer, Newton, and the Founding Fathers all on my own, with only the guidance from the reading plan provided by the Syntopicon, proved to be a task I was ill-suited to overcome at the time.
Fast forward to the midsummer of 2019. I decided to tackle the Great Books again. After reading dutifully every night for weeks, I made it through half of the first-year reading plan. I was weary but I would not be deterred. Surely someone, somewhere had come up with some techniques to make reading the Great Books easier and more manageable. A quick Google search and a recommendation from the classics badge in The Strenuous Life brought me to Online Great Books. I put my name on the list for the next time enrollment opened up and waited.
It was early August when I finally got the email for enrollment. With a rush of excitement, I signed up and within a week I had the first book sent to me: How To Read A Book by Mortimer J. Adler. What the heck?! This wasn’t on the Great Books reading list I had!!! Who even is this Adler guy and who does he think HE is telling me how to read?! I did what any person with an internet connection would do. I Googled him. Turns out he was the guy who led the compilation of the Great Books! That makes sense. What I first thought would turn out to be a ridiculously boring read ended up fundamentally changing the way I read. From taking notes in the margins (this one used to really kill me but I got over it), to doing a pre-read of the book(similar to skimming) all the way to doing a cross-book deep dive into a single topic, Adler covered it all.
Before we get much further, I have to be honest with you: the majority of the value in OGB isn’t from the books themselves. Now, don’t get me wrong, the books provide tremendous value and will change your life the more time you spend with them. However, the true value of OGB comes from the community of readers and the people spearheading the program. Upon joining, you will be assigned to a seminar and given access to the Slack channel. The seminars are where the book discussions happen. The Seminars are where the magic happens. I have had my mind changed, my values and ideas challenged, and just some darn good conversation all in a respectful way through the seminars. I didn’t realize how starved I was of good, deep, meaningful conversation until I joined OGB. The seminar host isn’t there to teach. OGB DOES NOT TEACH AND IT NEVER WILL AND IT NEVER SHOULD. YOU JUST GET THAT IDEA RIGHT OUT OF YOUR HEAD RIGHT THIS INSTANT, DAD GUMMIT *descends into a rural PA gibberish.
Sorry about that. Where was I? Oh yes! The seminar hosts provide questions and insights when the conversations start to falter. They reel the conversations back in when it starts to drift. The hosts are learning and contributing to the conversation just like any other member. Some of my favorite moments in the seminars are when the quieter members speak up. Every time, without fail, they add some new perspective or insight on the topic that stops everyone dead in their tracks. Part of the beauty of the seminars is how they force you to clearly rationalize and defend your positions about the text. OGB covers everything, and I do mean everything. From history to ancient politics (which is frightfully modern in its application), to tragedy, comedy, plays, mathematics, and physics, the first year of OGB will have you reading things you never thought you would, and the seminars help you understand the parts that confused you.
On the flip side, the Slack channel provides a wealth of conversation on topics that aren’t covered in the Great Books. From a channel dedicated to J.R.R. Tolkien (shameless plug since I spearhead that reading group), to a channel solely focused on creation myths, to a general forum for open discussions and everywhere in between, OGB provides a place for people looking to learn, discuss, and deepen their understanding of their thoughts, this world, and their place in it. Now that I’ve sung OGB praise to the high heavens, let us focus next on the Great Books.
“Rage-Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Acheans countless losses…” (Iliad 1.1-2). The opening line to one of the most iconic literary works sets the tone for a bloody, violent, and entertaining epic, the first of its kind that we know of. Throughout Homer’s work, we see heroes commit daring deeds, brave danger with fearless abandon, and make hard choices for the good of their people. We also see those same heroes murder needlesly, take things they had no right to take, and hold onto grudges to the detriment of themselves and others. As one of the members in my seminar pointed out: the story plays out a lot like a modern high school drama. The war could be replaced with a football game, the gods would be the faculty, and our cast of humans would be the students. I’ll admit that, at first, I really didn’t like The Iliad. However, having read it I now realize how often it is referenced in books, movies, plays, and even music. The Iliad has found its way into the hearts and minds of countless generations. It speaks to human nature. It shows the best and worst qualities of mankind wrapped up in a bloody wartime drama.
Homer follows up The Iliad with a sequel unlike any I have read before. The Odyssey is one man’s journey to get home. Having just fought a war Odysseus wants to get back home to his family to rule over his lands. Instead he gets trapped in a series of unfortunate events brought about by his own weaker nature. Throughout The Odyssey we see a parallel between Odysseus and his son, Telemachus. I won’t give any spoilers but I found the son’s search for his father to be all too relatable.
The Greek tragedies show again just how timeless the Great Books are. From Aeshylus to Euripedes all the way through Sophocles, we see suffering made manifest. A young woman rebelling against the state to honor her dead family. A statesman punishing a rebel, upholding the law because the law is sacred. A mother left by her husband goes to great lengths to scorn him. A husband leaving his wife to prevent the king from bringing his wrath against them. A god gives man fire and knowledge such that they might survive and is punished by an eternity chained to a rock. Zeus, King of the Gods, punishes a rebel who helped humanity directly against his orders. A man fulfills a prophecy and becomes a king, only to find out that it carries a terrible curse with it. What the Greek tragedies do so well is capture the essence of suffering. To do this, they often make both sides of a conflict relatable. You can understand why characters do what they do and it can cause you to reflect on your morals and values. Which is more important: The law as written or the spirit of justice? It is one of many themes that occur again and again. The Tragedians will never give you the answer. You have to meditate and figure it out yourself.
After so much pain and suffering, our esteemed leaders at OGB bless us with a respite: comedy. Reading Aristophenes taught me that dick and poop jokes are timeless. They always have been and they always will be. He also shows us how to use comedy to make a point. From his criticism of politicians all throughout his plays, to his commentary on useless wars, Aristophenes makes you laugh as you close in on uncomfortable truths. He set the bar for the highest form of comedy which we still see repeated by comedians today. It brings to mind Ricky Gervais roasting the Oscars while hosting the Oscars.
Through a stroke of pure genius and in an effort to maintain the reader’s sanity, OGB HQ spreads out Plato across several months in between some of the tragedies and comedies. This creates a nice reading flow that really prevents the reader from getting burned out on any one of the reading types. This is my obligatory statement that Plato is not easy to read. From what I’ve heard among the other OGBers (as we are called) you either love or hate Plato. There is very little middle ground. I have even seen this division in my seminar group. Regardless of what you think of the character Socrates, the questions asked and arguments made will have your mind turning for months and years. Can one be taught or can one only learn? What is the difference between the two? What is worse: committing a crime and getting away with it or committing a crime and being punished? What is the purpose of a sacrifice? What is Love? What is Truth? We poor readers are bombarded with question after question, as are Socrates’ conversation companions, and given argument after argument for why Socrates is right. These works, of which you will barely scratch the surface in the first year, will provide hours of conversation for your seminar.
The Great Books of the Western World and the conversations you will have in OGB will change you. Sure, you could start up a local reading group and work through these yourself with some buddies. I have no doubt that our Reader-In-Chief, Scott, would encourage you to do so. However, finding other people willing to read a book, let alone tackling hard books, is a challenge. OGB’s mission is to get more people reading great books and having Great Conversations. After one year I can officially say I’m hooked for life. It’s so good to be home.